The Value of ‘Going It Alone’

Guest blogger: David S. Coyne, QEP, Principal at Liberty Environmental, Inc.

It can be said in this politically volatile, rigidly-divided society we now live in that there are really are just two types of people in this world.  Republicans and Democrats, you say? Conservatives and Liberals?   Kardashians and Jenners?  No, no, and, um…no.

I mean, of course, those who can read with the TV on, and those who can’t.

And while I certainly hope it’s not a sign of my cognitive decline, I place myself firmly in the latter group these days.  I’m likely one of the few individuals left on the planet who prefer to exercise without earbuds, and listen instead to my thoughts, the birds (and oncoming traffic!) as I jog.  I’ve even caught myself on a short drive on a mild fall day with no radio on; just the wind whistling through the open windows, a behavior my socially-connected 14-year old daughter finds outright horrifying.

Reviewing my notes a few years ago after a full week of performing site inspections on due diligence project sites, I also noticed a stark difference related to this issue. When accompanied by a site representative during the walkover, my notes tended to be cursory, non-linear, and more general in nature. Those notes required careful review, and needed ample after-the-fact margin notes to supplement what I recalled the conditions to be. By contrast, notes taken while I walked a property alone were better organized, more sequential, clearer to understand, and carried far more detail by comparison. The solo notes didn’t require any interpretation, and I was able to carry the data more directly into my reports and, accordingly, into my project findings.

Intrigued by this difference, I found an interesting piece of research online: according to a collection of clinical studies between 1964 and 2014 recounted in the research periodical Frontiers of Psychology, audio and visual distractions resulted in significantly lower memory recall of details and chronological events, reductions in attention spans, and difficulty problem-solving.  The effects were most pronounced in older individuals, who generally showed a lower ability to screen out sensory distractions while performing concentrated tasks.

With this scientific evidence in hand, I’ve since endeavored to use this knowledge to my advantage in the job.  Site inspections for due diligence, permitting, or plan preparation are typically performed in the company of others.  Most often, the ‘others’ are one or more site contacts whose task it is to escort us through a facility for the purpose of safety, security, or a general sense of duty to the project at hand.  This is certainly understandable and often absolutely essential to the data collection process. But when a guided tour instead becomes a constant commentary, however, our site-contact-as-tour-guide threatens to divert us, innocently or otherwise, away from something very important: that area of staining, the small door leading to the chemical containment room, or the barely-visible patching marking a former underground storage tank.  At worst, a guided walkthrough can feel like a whirlwind, sweeping us along and leaving us feeling overwhelmed and mentally scattered afterward, with a field log full of blank spots.

So, should we shun all human interaction on the job site? Certainly not, our success depends on our ability to work with others, and particularly our site contacts.  But thankfully, we can properly manage our experience on site to achieve the best results.  I’ve adopted a method I call the 10-50-30 Rule, which I made up entirely and has utterly no scientific basis behind it. First, I’ll take 10 minutes to sit with the site contact in one place, an office typically, and ask general questions about site fundamentals: Age of the building? Site operations? Waste streams? Next, I allow for a guided tour for the remainder of the hour, which is often sufficient for a thorough but efficient operational view of most facilities.  Lastly, I request that I be allowed to revisit certain portions of the site for a half hour – on my own – to complete my notes and focus on areas that will be most important to the project objectives.

I find this last segment to be the most valuable part of the inspection by far.  It’s where I can revisit an area I felt hurried through earlier, grab a few extra photos of a boiler plaque or tank, scrutinize a surface stain to see if it extends to the slab edge.  Most importantly, I find that the time alone simply galvanizes my overall observations and conclusions in my mind, making it easier to recall and recount in report format later.

And with this technique, I’ve found that the process of data collection and interpretation can always be improved upon, toward the most effective project results.  Go ahead, try it yourself – turn that radio off and listen to the wind through the window!

Pictured Above: Liberty Environmental Project Manager, Matt Adukaitis, documents a vent pipe on an ESA walkthrough.